Every so often, storytellers land on the same idea close enough to the same time that it rattles the zeitgeist like an earthquake.
That's how it felt, sifting through the well-crafted, emotionally exhausting scenes that fill HBO's version of The Normal Heart. Created as a searing, tragic look at the early days of the AIDS crisis in New York City, this TV movie joins the Oscar-winning film Dallas Buyer's Club and Peabody-winning documentary How to Survive a Plague as a trio of excellent works documenting this country's shameful first reaction to the spread of a mysterious disease that ravaged marginalized communities across America.
When I asked How to Survive a Plague director David France why right now felt like a good time to peel back 30 years of history, he talked about time.
Specifically, he said the storytellers who lived through those times needed some distance before they could handle talking about what they experienced; when the director first tried to talk with activists for his film, many of them still couldn't speak easily. Even France, an openly gay journalist who covered the emerging AIDS crisis before it had a name, admitted he initially had trouble pushing himself to relive the days when too many friends died too soon and the world didn't seem to care.
One look at HBO's The Normal Heart shows why. The story centers on Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo), a writer and gay activist with a reputation for heated passion and baldfaced commentary; a not-so-thinly veiled version of the gay author and activist who created the play and wrote this film's screenplay, Larry Kramer.
We meet Weeks in 1981 as the goofy, undersexed man out during a wild weekend at Fire Island, the Long Island area vacation destination for gay men. He's already drawn ire for writing that the promiscuity of gay men makes love impossible; we see Weeks wander through the unbridled hedonism of the Island like a tourist too scared to jump into a cold stream.
Ironically, that reserve may have saved his life. Cute-as-a-button Glee alum Jonathan Groff plays the first among Weeks' friends to get sick; within months, cases are piling up at the offices of Dr. Emma Brookner, seemingly the only physician in New York who takes this epidemic seriously.
Played with a decided lack of glamour by Julia Roberts, Brookner is passionate and blunt as Weeks, unable to use her legs after a childhood bout with polio. But the pair's efforts to rally support in the gay community initially falls on deaf ears, as men who seem to define their political identity by their promiscuity resist any suggestion that they should stop having sex.
"If having sex can kill you, doesn't anyone with half a brain stop f---ing?" Roberts-as-Brookner barks in exasperation. Apparently, she's not familiar with smokers, who keep puffing even though they absolutely know what they're doing will shorten their lives.
The movie becomes a sorrowful documentation of all the horrors packed into the first three years of the AIDS crisis. Brookner and Weeks tour a gruesome hospital ward, where uncertainty over how the disease is transmitted leads workers to shun patients as they lay dying.
City officials turn a blind eye even as emergency rooms refuse to treat people with full blown AIDS, amid rumors that Mayor Ed Koch is a closeted gay man. News reports initially call it "gay cancer" then GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency); the sense that the world isn't concerned with a disease killing gay men and intravenous drug users is palpable.
The film enlists a cast of beloved, well-known actors keep the audience engaged through such wrenching scenes, including Ruffalo, Roberts, Matt Bomer (White Collar), Jim Parsons (Big Bang Theory), Taylor Kitsch (Friday Night Lights) and B.D. Wong (Law & Order: SVU). Director Ryan Murphy, who deserves a cheer just for bringing Kramer's play to the small screen after many others failed, scores in every casting choice.
Bomer reportedly lost 40 pounds to play Felix Turner, the closeted New York Times reporter who falls for Weeks and eventually contracts AIDS. And Ruffalo's rumpled charm is key in making a likable figure of Weeks, a cantankerous agitator who seemed to anger everyone in his quest to end the deadly silence surrounding this epidemic. Just like Kramer.
It is hard to remember, at a time when HIV-positive celebrities like Magic Johnson have lived nearly 25 years, that there was a long period of widespread disagreement over how AIDS was transmitted and how to treat it. And in an age where a kid falling down a skateboard ramp can become national news, it's also hard to imagine how an emerging disease could kill over 1,000 Americans and get little attention from journalists, lawmakers or public health institutions.
That is the greatest value of movies like The Normal Heart, which takes us back to a time before gay weddings were featured on popular sitcoms and cable news conflicts made the politics of confrontation commonplace.
In the film, Weeks' insistence on passionate, public anger earns enemies among some gay activists, who feared exposure and political pressure.
But if there is any criticism of The Normal Heart that resonates, it's that the story stops before events proved that the Weeks/Kramer style of activism actually works.
As David France's How to Survive a Plague documents, New York's gay activists eventually helped push public officials and pharmaceutical companies to provide effective treatments to AIDS. They educated themselves about the disease enough to serve as consultants to drug makers and public policy types
But none of those victories are shown in The Normal Heart, which ends in 1984. Weeks is awkwardly attending another event where gay men are pairing up – a gay dance at Yale University — alone and an outsider. He's been kicked out of the Gay Men's Health Crisis group he helped found and the deaths keep piling up.
As the struggle to legalize gay marriage continues and some complain of a "gay agenda" in public life, films like The Normal Heart have arrived to remind us when the fight for gay rights was even more directly a matter of life and death.
And perhaps only now, as we pat ourselves on the back for the mainstreaming of gay life and culture in today's America, are we ready to look back with open eyes on a time when our lack of acceptance killed far too many people.
Judged by that timetable, looks like The Normal Heart has arrived just in time.
The Normal Heart airs at 9 p.m. Sunday on HBO.